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Price of Paradise: The challenges facing young professionals to live and work on the Central Coast

Posted at 8:30 AM, Feb 04, 2020
and last updated 2020-02-04 17:43:41-05

A new report paints a bleak picture of the future workforce along the Central Coast, but there still is hope.

On Tuesday, a poll commissioned by the Hourglass Project collected the opinions of 540 registered voters, ages 18 to 54.

Some of the key findings were:

  • One in 529 respondents believes housing is affordable.
  • Half of all middle class residents are considering leaving the region.
  • One in three respondents say they would need to borrow money or run up credit debt to cover a $500 emergency.
  • 86-percent of respondents don't think young people can afford to live and work on the Central Coast.

Young professionals looking to stake a career here face a number of challenges.

"I expected having to move out of the area, if not out of the state, let alone be afforded the opportunity to go to Cal Poly itself," Kevin Hurtado said, a mechanical engineer who graduated from Cal Poly last year at 29. He served in the Marine Corps with two tours in the Middle East.

The average salary start for a mechanical engineer is around "$68,000 to $75,000," Hurtado said.

The average value of a home in San Luis Obispo County is $635,000, but is even higher in the City of San Luis Obispo where Hurtado lives.

"It's disheartening looking at housing prices that are here," he said. "A lot of the newer houses being built are out of my price range if I were to buy one alone. So I would have to find someone who makes as much as I do or makes more so we could support ourselves, with both of us putting half of our income to housing. And that doesn't even include insurance or vehicles or travel we expect to do for work."

"I have a few friends that currently they've been here for three years and they can't buy a home, they can't support themselves, and they're leaving. They have no other choice. They don't want to leave, but they can't throw money to the breeze anymore in the hopes that it will change."

Salaries are on the minds of Cal Poly students who lined up to meet with 175 employers at the Career Fair in January.

"SLO is actually the 3rd highest destination for our graduates," Eileen Buecher said, Cal Poly Career Services Executive Director. "So 17% percent of our graduates from 2018 stayed here. And over the three years, 12% of our students stayed here. So SLO is attractive to our students."

It is true San Luis Obispo and the Central Coast is an attractive place to live. The beaches, sunsets, and rolling hills is just a small piece of the beauty this place has to offer.

"SLO has the whole gamut," Zachary Sailer said. "You have the young, kind of fun life here. Then when you're starting to settle down, you want to set your roots."

Sailer, a Cal Poly alumnus and entrepreneur, recruits at the career fair. His company Project Jupyter is open source programming, building software for scientists around the globe.

"I don't think it's a hard sell," Sailer said. "If we can provide them an income that they can live off of, which we can, all we have to say is the beach is 10 minutes that way. For us, we just promise we're not looking to get rid of people. We're bringing people to stick around. I think more companies are starting to take that attitude. We're not hiring you for a year, we're hiring you for the long term."

"A lot of them get multiple offers when they graduate in this economy. But what they are looking for is to stay engaged," Buecher said. "They are smart students, they have a great work ethic, but they want to be connected to the company, the culture, they want mentoring, they want opportunities, they want to give back to the community. So it's not just a job, it's a whole lifestyle experience for this generation."

The average annual wage in San Luis Obispo County $50,200, according to the newest numbers by the Economic Vitality Corporation. For the students we spoke with, it is a lack of the job opportunity forcing them away.

"I did consider [staying], because San Luis Obispo is a beautiful place with a lot of opportunities, but since I am oriented toward the technology start up scene, I thought the south bay area would have more opportunities," senior Olga Baryshnikova said.

Senior Tiffany Cha, who also attended the career fair, said "it's a possible place to [work after graduating], but I think I want to expand my network and kind of move to the Bay or LA."

"Maybe when you're 22, 24, San Luis Obispo doesn't seem to be the fit, but by the time you hit 30, we're trying to encourage people to come back and we're seeing some of that happen," Jim Dantona said. Dantona is the San Luis Obispo Chamber of Commerce's President and CEO. He says leaders are working on housing to ensure bright minds can do business in the Happiest City in America.

"We're seeing a lot of students coming out of Cal Poly and even later in their career starting up their own companies to meet the needs of the community. And we've developed a lot of folks around here who want to invest in those startups and be on the ground floor to be that next MINDBODY."

There is hope -- a number of groups, including SLO Under 40, are creating a network among young professionals to make housing more affordable.

"The under 40 community feels empowered to get involved, and to show up and to get civically engaged is pretty incredible," Kelly Donohue said, a founding member of SLO U40. "And I think we're going to see all the fruits of that labor shift what kind of community we live in."

And it will need to be a collective effort from municipalities and their residents in order to make that successful.

"If we -- Morro Bay, Atascadero, San Luis Obispo and all the communities, even northern Santa Barbara County -- work together, we are more economically viable as a region than we are siloed," Donohue said.

Donohue says there is no silver bullet answer to young professionals working two, sometimes three jobs to make ends meet, but the participation to finding answers is a major step forward.

"Are we where we want to be? I don't think so. But do I think we can get there? I do think that. Since the birth of SLO Scoop and SLO U40, we've seen a tremendous amount of involvement from the under 40 community. That to me gives me a lot of hope. And that to me speaks to the type of community we live in."

"We're laying down plans so we don't grow like an LA or San Francisco that it ends up ruining the quality life in favor of growth," Dantona said. "We're really excited about what the next 5 to 10 years hold and I think the City of San Luis Obispo and the County are putting in place things today that will allow us to do that."

The median age of San Luis Obispo County is 39. But if efforts to make this an attractive place to put roots down are successful, that number could grow closer to the state average of 35.

Here at KSBY, we are committed to addressing issues to help get us through these challenges. We want to hear from you. What are the issues that concern you when it comes to the Price of Paradise here on the Central Coast? Email us at, or message us on Facebook, Instagram or Twitter.